Is Antiguan Pan Ready to Rebound?

by Dalton Narine

Republished with the expressed permission of the authors from -  PAN - Fall 1987 - Vol.1 No.1

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Hard on the heels of the Trinidadian progenitors, Antigua leapt onto the steel band music scene with a bang. Now, some key figures think the frontrunner image has receded to the point where the Antiguan movement could sorely use a lift.

The name of Lord Baldwin came up repeatedly. We’re talking about pan in Antigua, right? So who is this Lord Baldwin, anyway—a seasoned bard, perhaps, in the kingdom of calypso, pan’s long-time companion folk art? Not quite. Would you believe, real honest-to-goodness British nobility! Lord Baldwin happened to be Governor of the Leeward Islands just in time to anoint the fledgling Antiguan steel band movement, declare it worthy of respect and preservation, when the hoity-toity of Antiguan citizenry were poised to deliver a death-dealing kick-in-the-rump to what they considered a public nuisance.

Lord Baldwin was Governor in the late 40’s through 1950 and he came out strongly in support of pan music as a genuine cultural bonanza. He offered to become patron of Antigua’s first steel band, Hell’s Gate, and had them perform at Government House functions. Upon his encouragement, musical heavyweights such as Vere Griffith and Bertha Higgins got into tutoring the bands. And the somewhat iconoclastic patrician from merry England also initiated the first steel band competition in 1949, with Hell’s Gate, Red Army and Brute Force entered.

Antigua’s first steel band, Hell’s Gate, in a vintage 1949 photo.

There is some disagreement over the circumstances that led to the first steel band appearing in Antigua. George Joseph, one of the Hell’s Gate founding fathers, claims that pan made its debut on the island when an Antiguan who had lived in Trinidad for some time came back to Antigua with one of the early steel pan prototypes, reportedly a six-noter. This, according to Joseph, was in 1946. Eustace “Manning” Henry, who was also a Hell’s Gater from day one, asserts that the first pan to be seen in Antigua wasn’t an instrument physically transported there from Trinidad, but was constructed in Antigua after some Antiguan young men returned home from Trinidad and passed on word about the new musical invention they had witnessed there. According to Henry, 1947 was the year of the first “organized” pan music made by Hell’s Gate.

These conflicting claims (so what else is new?) notwithstanding, what’s known for sure is that by the end of the decade of the 40’s, Antigua was in hot and heavy pursuit of this dynamic new musical form. Packing a powerful one-two wallop of support from Baldwin on the one hand and the island’s labor leaders on the other, the steel bands dug in voraciously. In Henry’s words, “We were set. We were on our way. Lord Baldwin’s support had really crowned it for us, since he had the authority to make things happen.”

Arthur “Bum” Jardine became involved with the Brute Force band in 1949, a love-at-first-sound relationship developing between himself and pan music when the band began rehearsing in his mother’s yard. A resident of New York since 1969, Jardine remembers how the pan phenomenon really took off in those early years. He cites Brute Force’s appearance at a Caribbean cultural festival in Puerto Rico in 1952 and the early Cook recordings by Brute Force and Hell’s Gate as evidence of how much Antiguan pan was going guns.

Hell’s Gate had in fact done a turn in St. Thomas as early as 1949. Jardine has gone on record with the claim that, with their assorted exploits, Antiguans had successfully wrested the pan supremacy crown from their Trinidadian counterparts by the early 50’s (One could well imagine a totally different evaluation coming from, for one, the collection of stalwarts comprising the trail-blazing Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra which mesmerized audiences in England and France in 1951).

pict3.jpg The Brute Force band, with mentor Vere Griffith (back row) circa 1950.

Front-runner or not, it was, by all accounts a good head of steam that the Antiguan pan movement had generated to take into the 60’s. Then a period of dormancy set in. This, according to some of the key practitioners. Jardine thinks it began in the early 60’s when “some of the best tuners started to leave Antigua—people like Alex Roberts, ‘Wellie’ Howell and Walton. Interest was waning; there wasn’t enough work.”

Erosion of the tuner ranks might have helped Eustace Henry perfect his craft to the extent where he is generally regarded (he is now 55) as a highly proficient maker of pans. He acknowledges that there was indeed a dearth of pan-making talent in the 60’s which, by the end of the decade, the bands sought to remedy by looking to Trinidad to fill the gap. He is however careful to point out that his group, the redoubtable Hell’s Gate, did not follow the trend of soliciting outside help. “Being the first band,” he says, “we had a certain pride. We felt we should always be able to say ‘we did this ourselves.’”

Rupert “Teelah” Parker started active pan involvement in 1960 with an aggregation of younger panists called Junior Hell’s Gate, which subsequently became Harmonites—everyone’s idea of Antigua’s most outstanding steel band today.  Parker isn’t about to make any apologies for the importing of pan-tuning talent. He says unhesitatingly, “We got better justice. The Trinidadians really gave us good pans. There was no one locally whose instruments could compare with what we were getting. Even now, the standard of the pans made here is not as good.”

Along with the recruiting of Trinidadian tuners, a practice developed of commissioning arrangers from Trinidad as well for the annual steel band competition held during Antigua’s Carnival. There are those, though, who strongly feel that this obsession with foreign expertise has been the bane of the Antiguan steel band movement’s existence.

Reggie Knight, who headed the island’s Carnival Committee for several years and who now has administrative responsibility for the Committee as Director of Culture: “I told them (the bands) they don’t appreciate what we have. We have arrangers here, we have tuners here. They don’t use them.” Knight says he once thought to “put my foot down” on the matter of bringing in foreign help. “But I decided not to and instead I offered a special prize for the top local arranger in the competition. That didn’t change anything. There are bands here who feel that for them to win a competition, they have to go overseas to find an arranger.”  

pict4.jpgRupert Teelah Parker

Eustace Henry: “I’ve been talking about this for years. They tell me nobody here makes good quality pans. If they don’t give the local tuners and arrangers a chance, the fellows will never be able to show what they can do.”

Jardine says he has suggested that the Antiguan panists who are inclined to be tuners should be sent down to Trinidad to learn the craft. Which hasn’t happened so far—yet another meat-and-potatoes issue that might have been more effectively addressed, one conjectures, had there been a viable umbrella organization overseeing the art form’s advancement.

Antiguan panists’ attempts at convening in any kind of permanent amalgamation have never quite gotten to first base. Knight makes tart reference to the bands getting together in an “organization” of sorts every year for the sole purpose of making demands of the Carnival Committee, some of which he characterizes as “ridiculous.” He allows that “the bands need help. But they have to show a greater sense of responsibility than the way they’re operating now.” To support his contention, he points out that the bands have habitually shown scant regard for their instruments and equipment once Carnival is over. Which has made it more difficult, of late, to garner sponsor support. “Business people,” Knight says, “have backed off from the idea of steel band sponsorship because the cost of producing a band for Carnival has become very prohibitive.”

pict5.jpgArt Jardine

Jardine laments the absence of a unifying body for pan and thinks that “greed and fear” are the root cause. “I guess some guys figure they don’t need an association to get ahead and others feel that if they’re part of an association they won’t get work because the top bands would monopolize. Whereas they should be thinking that they’re all artists and need to form some kind of a power base for themselves to work toward developing their talents. So there’s need for more education in that general area.”

Over at the Tourist Board, manager Edie Hill-Thibou claims to have “a very good relationship” with the steel bands. The tourist sector is where the groups find work, of course, more so during high season, when the influx of visitors reaches its peak. “I don’t keep using one band. I try to use all of them as much as possible in the different locations,” Thibou says, adding that, as an important tourism promotion ploy, “bands have gone all over the world representing Antigua as part of our culture.”

For the tourist industry to provide the main avenue of interest (and income) for steel bands is certainly not uncommon in the Caribbean area. But in Antigua, which traditionally has projected an image of being, apart from Trinidad & Tobago, the most pan-hip society, one detects some real concern over the pan culture’s inability to generate broad support among local folk. Knight points to the annual steel band competition’s lack of crowd-drawing power, indicating that attendance has always been low, compared to the Calypso King or Carnival Queen shows. “You give a dance with a steel band providing music, it will not be successful,” Knight adds, buttressing his claim.

Small wonder that Jardine, arguably the most able and respected panist the island has produced (among his career high points was being selected to do a solo for Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon when they honeymooned in Antigua), would say today he’s “not comfortable at all” when he gives the broad sweep to the Antiguan pan movement’s current status and its prospects for the future.

He doesn’t see the situation as hopeless, but there are some decisive moves that he thinks would have to be made. “They (the panists) have to start thinking about doing more stuff—concerts, whatever—at least three to five times a year other than Carnival... try different areas, different types of music, and it doesn’t have to be all pan either. Also, they have to understand that knowledge is there to be shared, not to be hoarded. Everyone doesn’t have to be on the warpath.”

Antiguan panists’ attempts at convening in any kind of permanent amalgamation have never quite gotten to first base.

All of which, again, would seem to be a pretty tall order without some central force cementing and giving direction to the effort. A vibrant organization keeps right on pleading to be brought forth.

Eustace Henry, for his part, thinks he is beginning to see some daylight through the cracks. The drought of sponsorship dollars is forcing bands to utilize talent from within their own ranks rather than look overseas for tuners or arrangers. Economic considerations have also caused the bands’ sizes to be scaled down to realistic proportions from the units of 100 members or thereabouts that have been unveiled in competition in previous years. “I think all of that is good,” Henry says. “Maybe things are changing.”

Republished from - PAN -
Fall 1987 - Vol.1 No.1

But the voice of officialdom isn’t so sure. And, rather than speculate as to whether an attitudinal turnaround is afoot, Reggie Knight seems to want to place his bets elsewhere. “The Government supports the steel band as an art. They would like to see it continue to develop.” A substantial amount of funds has been budgeted, he reports, to get seven bands started in the school system—a move, according to Knight, not prompted by any ritualistic obligation to go through those particular motions. But because, he says, “the future of pan in Antigua lies with the schools. It’s as simple as that.”

Related Articles on Antigua: Click here



WST Notes & Extras:
Since the original publishing of this article in the Fall of 1985 in Pan Magazine, Pan in Antigua & Barbuda has indeed rebounded very well. Pan music programs can now be found many of the Antigua schools. In addition, the community are alive and well.


Republished from -  PAN -  Fall 1985 - Vol.1 No.1  

contact author Dalton Narine at:

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Editor-in-Chief: Leslie Slater
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